Dungeons & Dragons and the Trust Thermocline

Recently Dungeons & Dragons, the hugely popular tabletop roleplaying game has been hitting the headlines, and not for the right reasons. Of course, a bunch of nerds talking like Gollum and rolling dice matters little to your business and your clients. And why does a marketing company care for that matter? Well, there are a few reasons; Firstly, I am a massive nerd, not only do I play tabletop roleplaying games on a regular basis, I also put out an ‘actual play’ podcast that’s doing ok in some countries, (I’m looking at you Albania and Barbados); Secondly, The Inside Story’s core ideology is about the tales we tell, and roleplaying games are all about stories; And lastly and perhaps most importantly, this is a tale of treating your client base with respect and avoiding the ‘Trust Thermocline’ drop.

So, what’s happened? Well, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, the owners of D&D, have been dealing with a dumpster fire of their own making over this last month. To fully understand the extent of what has gone on however, I need to give you a little ‘nerd-history’, but if you’d like further breakdown, have a look at this breakdown by Gamesradar.com.

In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released their Open Game License or OGL, which allowed third parties to create products such as rulesbooks and adventures using their basic D&D ruleset. Various companies created offshoots with these rules and things went on as normal. Over the last 7-8 years however, the game has developed an increasingly strong community, both online and off. Large scale projects using D&D as a basis have become exceptionally popular; Critical Role’s record-breaking Kickstarter to fund an animated version of their YouTube actual play sessions, to finding a home on Amazon Prime and in fact recently confirming a 3rd series and multiple new IP to come out in the coming years, is one such example. There’s even a major Hollywood film due to be released in a matter of weeks.

Over this time Wizards of the Coast built up a great amount of goodwill and is certainly considered to be the most well-known and popular TTRPG in existence. So far, so groovy, right?

Well, mere days into the new year a revised version of the OGL was leaked to io9 to huge uproar from the community. Without getting into the weeds of the changes, they were harsh and sweeping, and bizarrely, retroactive. It affected many other competing companies by claiming the right to use all OGL related content how Hasbro saw fit. Royalties were also demanded of 3rd party content creators.

This led to widespread outcry from industry figures, other developers announced a move away from the OGL and thousands of people unsubscribed from D&D Beyond, the online subscription service. Wizards of the Coast however, remained silent. Even more concern and outrage built. The pressure cooker of Twitter was whistling like the stew was well and truly cooked.

A week later, they published an impersonal response which walked back a few of the less contentious plans, but was filled with easily proven falsehoods and ultimately framed as a “win-win” for themselves and the fans. Unsurprisingly, this was taken with the same kind of disdain as seeing Kendall Jenner calming an angry BLM protest by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. This is the point D&D hit the “Trust Thermocline” and tumbled into a self-created death spiral. As Gareth Edwards of Every.to says:

“In large bodies of water, the temperature drops slowly the deeper one dives. That change can, if the descent is slow enough, feel almost imperceptible. Yet at a certain point, the water temperature drops sharply and alarmingly. This point is the thermocline—a near-physical barrier where warm water meets cold. The shift between the two is sudden and dramatic.

In business, particularly digital services or businesses relying on a subscription revenue model, trust works in the same way. Wired into those products and services is a “trust thermocline.” It is a point which, once crossed, otherwise healthy businesses and products suddenly collapse.”

For a product that is built on stories, D&D didn’t seem to understand that its fans are of the type that they become so invested in the product through their own stories, it is not a simple customer transaction. It is a client transaction. Customer transactions are transitory, whereas a client has a long-term relationship with you and your product. They will stay with you and purchase all you have to offer. They are the super fans, and they will sing your praises or conversely, pull you up on your crap.

“These collapses happen because most businesses fail to properly understand how a reliance on emotional engagement changes the way consumer trust in their product works.”

After another bout of D&D beyond cancellations and further calls to boycott the game, Wizards of the Coast released another statement and eventually asked the fans to decide what they should do via a series of polls. Unsurprisingly the fans opted to remove the issues that would creatively kill the game and the 3rd party publishers. The OGL has now been released under a Creative Commons license and as such cannot be revoked. Hasbro seems to have put out the dumpster fire, but the feeling of betrayal still pervades.

There are plenty of people that will still play D&D, despite all the difficulties in the way in which the company has behaved, but can they afford to lose their loyal fans? There’s been a marked uptick in interest in other gaming systems due to this misstep. And if something like this can happen to a world dominating company like Hasbro, surely, it’s worth considering your relationship with your clients? What choices do you make and how do you represent yourself to avoid the Trust Thermocline?

Customer transactions are transitory, whereas a client has a long-term relationship with you and your product. They will stay with you and purchase all you have to offer. They are the super fans, and they will sing your praises or conversely, pull you up on your crap.

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